When You Feel Too Much: Reflections from an Empathic Black Woman

by Nneka M. Okona

Growing up, the world was a vast, looming place full of feelings and emotions. And there was most definitely something wrong with me, unequivocally, undoubtedly, because I felt them all—the highs, the lows, and the in-betweens—intensely. It was too much. And I must have been too much, too, since I experienced them all and no one else seemed to.

I remember identifying with these truths at a young age, maybe when I was four or five years old. Being me, as a little Black girl, meant intuitively detecting the moods of a person before they even spoke, and often taking on these feelings as my own. It meant feeling the energy of places, people, things, and being burdened with that energy if it was heavy. It meant feeling overwhelmed to an extreme degree by loud noises—yelling, sirens, car accidents, helicopters, TVs turned up too loud—and crouching whenever I encountered with these things. It meant being pummeled by the hurtful actions and behavior of others, feeling devastatingly wounded and  taking a long time to journey past those hurt feelings.

It also meant, as a little Black girl, learning very quickly that displaying too much emotion or being openly forlorn and vulnerable was frowned upon. Because if I showed any sign that I was hurt, I was indeed a weak person. And I had to be strong, at all costs.

My means of survival for most of my life meant suppressing the intensity of what I was feeling and how those emotions affected me, as I processed them and assigned meaning to them. It was easier to act stoic, cold, and unmoved—robotic even—rather than to admit at any moment, in every moment, I was chronically overwhelmed, overstimulated, and didn’t know how to function. How in any moment, in every moment, I wanted to cry because there was so much I felt and didn’t have a proper channel to release it all or a safe space to be understood.

This stifling of my emotions ultimately became destructive, of course. I channeled all I was feeling and experiencing into a profound degree of rage. A rage so icy and fierce it annihilated those who came into contact with it. I was emotionally reactive and out of control. It was almost like trying to keep a lid screwed tight on a Mason jar, but the contents kept overflowing.

I couldn’t contain myself.

But it was exhausting and embarrassing to deal with the aftermath each time. Eventually, I wanted something different. I wanted to be able to communicate my emotions and feelings in a healthy way before they spiraled out. I wanted to make sense of what I was feeling.

I began to do this through tending to my spiritual life and refining my spiritual practice. I started seeing a spiritual director in the fall of 2010. After a few visits and talks with my spiritual director, she, out of the blue, recommended a book to me. It was Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person.

I devoured the first chapter while crying. Reading through the pages was like reading my life story, and I finally felt validated and sane. I was not some crazy person who was difficult to love or understand. I was not “too emotional” and “too sensitive” as I had heard from numerous people for as long as I could remember. There was a particular way I experienced the world, a way that was vastly different from how many others did. It didn’t make me abnormal, faulty, or “too much”. It just made me different: a woman who is empathic and highly sensitive.

I am an empathic and highly sensitive Black woman, and as such, there are some truths to be accepted. The mere fact of our existence, our humanity, precedes us, despite how our countenance may manifest. We are supposed to uphold our families and friends, without question. We are called upon to be a reservoir of strength for everyone we come into contact with.

This is unrealistic, limiting, and tiring.

We, as Black women, have to know it’s okay to feel, to go into the depths of our spirits and truly experience our emotions, especially for us who are empaths. We have to discard the notion that we are faulty if we cry, or if our feelings are hurt, or if we can’t keep it together. Life—and shit in general—is hard. This doesn’t make us weak. This doesn’t make us less than. It makes us human.

Knowing these things and adopting them as core beliefs while demystifying the harmful “strong Black woman” trope is pivotal during this time when we are all trying to find our place and space within the #BlackLivesMatter movement—especially for us empaths.

A radical degree of self-care is needed to cling to my self-preservation. Setting boundaries; teaching others how to treat me; taking the necessary time to myself to rejuvenate and recharge; listening and nourishing my spirit; following my bliss and meditating help to keep me centered and remain closest to my truest self.

Limiting the amount of violent and dramatic imaging I take in—whether through social media or television—is equally important. Constantly absorbing these things, as an empath, can be detrimental to my mental and emotional health.

Another key aspect of being an empath is being able to keenly identify when what I am feeling is my own feelings vs. the feelings of others I have inadvertently taken on. This takes mindfulness and meditation to better discern between the two. I also started to use shielding as a practice, per advice from my therapist who suggested doing so.

I’ve realized who I am—an empathic and highly sensitive Black woman—is beautiful simply because I’m being my authentic self. I am a gift to the world. By insisting to be who I am with no reservations I encourage others—those who are empaths and those who are not—to do the same.

It’s about me, but it’s also not about me. It’s the ripple effect of dropping that tiny pebble into a pond and watching the ripples stretch farther and farther away from me. And by doing so, hoping, trusting, inspiring, and counting on others to reach within themselves and do the same.

Photo: Shutterstock

Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog, www.afrosypaella.com, her website, about.me/nnekaokona or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.

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